Global Rebellion

Secular nationalism might not take a stand on supernatural beliefs, but it restricts the public role of religion. Citizens are expected to have an allegiance to a modern state and its political process, while their specifically religious commitments get relegated to private life. Legitimate coercion, including violence, and the task of imposing public order are monopolized by a secular state. Religions that emphasize cosmic order reflected on Earth, and that legitimize coercion in the context of a divine social order, get marginalized.

To many of us, this is right and proper. We don’t have to be nonbelievers; more individualist religious believers can also take a secular political framework for granted. But life can get complicated, especially when our very notion of what binds us as citizens is closely connected to religion.

For example, to many Americans, the United States is a Christian country. This does not mean that government institutions should be linked to particular churches, or that non-Christian minorities should be second class citizens. It does mean, however, that many Americans expect that public life should have a generically Christian moral coloring. Being a good American means accepting the framework of a Protestant civilization—Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims can be welcome, provided they organize themselves similarly to a Protestant denomination and do not challenge the generic civil religion of the country. Secularists, when they push principles like church-state separation too far, threaten the public moral order.

Such informal cultural ties between citizenship and religious identity are common in other countries as well. Being Polish means, to a large degree, being a Catholic by culture and perhaps practice. Being Turkish means being a Muslim—most Turks will not call a member of a religious minority Turkish, even if Turkish is their mother tongue and they have always been a Turkish citizen.

And in many countries, secular nationalism that tries to privatize religion, and religious nationalism that demands explicit acknowledgment of a religious moral order, comes into conflict. In Sri Lanka, Sinhalese Buddhists demand that all citizens, of every religion, be aware of a unifying overall Buddhist culture that defines Sri Lanka. Tamils resist, often violently. In India, movements and political parties upholding hindutva clash with secularists, and with Muslims. In Egypt, the government is never Muslim enough for the Islamists, even though Egyptian culture and politics have been re-Islamized with a vengeance in the last decades. The status of Copts is always a problem. And so on, practically all over the world.

Mark Juergensmeyer’s Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, from Christian Militias to al Qaeda, is a very interesting guide to what he describes as a global rebellion against secular nationalism. A more explicitly religious nationalism is attractive in non-Western countries who want to throw off the cultural aspects of colonialism and establish a more authentic modernity. But it also finds significant constituencies in secular Western countries.

There is a lot in the book that will interest secularists in particular. For example, Juergensmeyer makes the observation that secularism is the prime enemy for religious nationalists, even more so than religious minorities with whom they may also clash. Finding some accommodation with another religious community is not impossible. But,

Could the accommodation approach work with secular minorities? Even in traditional religious cultures there are people who were raised in religious households but who, through travel, education, or association with modern urban culture, have lost interest in religion. Should there not be a safe cultural haven for such people in a religious society, just as the cultures of Copts and other minorities are maintained as islands in seas of religiosity? From most religious nationalists to whom I posed the question, the answer was a resounding no. They could accept the idea that other religious traditions provide valid alternatives to their own religious law but not secular culture: it has, in their eyes, no links with a higher truth. From their point of view, it is simply antireligion. Some religious nationalists found it difficult to accept secularism even in Europe and the United States, where, they felt, Christianity failed to keep its backsliders in line. Still, it seems to me that the logic of the two-level-shari’a admists at least the possibility of islands of different cultures within a religious state. [Page 237.]

I can add my own observations in support of this. Among Turkish Islamists, the idea of treating secularists as a separate “religious” community with its own laws and communal rights has been discussed. It doesn’t seem to me to have got far. Secularism is too alien, too much the enemy.

If the political trend today is toward religious rather than secular nationalism, secularists and nonbelievers have to give serious thought to how we might survive in such public environments. This does not mean that the trend is toward some premodern fantasy of being governed by pure religious laws. Religious political movements are often pragmatic and not as violent as their stereotype. Their main demand is that religion take a leading role in public legitimization, and that religion inform the overall moral climate of a society. They are not trying to abolish modern political forms. But nonetheless, the success of religious politics is inevitably a loss for those of us who identify with more secular political aspirations.